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6.3: Word Choice

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Identify the reasons why using a dictionary and thesaurus is important when writing.
    2. Identify how to use proper connotations.
    3. Identify how to avoid using slang, clichés, and overly general words in your writing.
    4. Recognize how synonyms improve writing.
    5. Identify common antonyms to increase your vocabulary.

    Effective writing involves making conscious choices with words. When you prepare to sit down to write your first draft, you likely have already completed some freewriting exercises, chosen your topic, developed your thesis statement, written an outline, and even selected your sources. When it is time to write your first draft, start to consider which words to use to best convey your ideas to the reader.

    Some writers are picky about word choice as they start drafting. They may practice some specific strategies, such as using a dictionary and thesaurus, using words and phrases with proper connotations, and avoiding slang, clichés, and overly general words.

    Once you understand these tricks of the trade, you can move ahead confidently in writing your assignment. Remember, the skill and accuracy of your word choice is a major factor in developing your writing style. Precise selection of your words will help you be more clearly understood—in both writing and speaking.

    As you work with your draft, you will want to pay particular attention to the words you have chosen. Do they express exactly what you are trying to convey? Can you choose better, more effective words? Familiarity with synonyms and antonyms can be helpful in answering these questions.

    Using a Dictionary and Thesaurus

    Even professional writers need help with the meanings, spellings, pronunciations, and uses of particular words. In fact, they rely on dictionaries to help them write better. No one knows every word in the English language and their multiple uses and meanings, so all writers, from novices to professionals, can benefit from the use of dictionaries.

    Most dictionaries provide the following information:

    • Spelling. How the word and its different forms are spelled.
    • Pronunciation. How to say the word.
    • Part of speech. The function of the word.
    • Definition. The meaning of the word.
    • Synonyms. Words that have similar meanings.
    • Etymology. The history of the word.

    Look at the following sample dictionary entry and see which of the preceeding information you can identify:

    myth, mith, n. [Gr. mythos, a word, a fable, a legend.] A fable or legend embodying the convictions of a people as to their gods or other divine beings, their own beginnings and early history and the heroes connected with it, or the origin of the world; any invented story; something or someone having no existence in fact.—myth • ic, myth • i • cal

    Like a dictionary, a thesaurus is another indispensable writing tool. A thesaurus gives you a list of synonyms, words that have the same (or very close to the same) meaning as another word. It also lists antonyms, words with the opposite meaning of the word. A thesaurus will help you when you are looking for the perfect word with just the right meaning to convey your ideas. It will also help you learn more words and use the ones you already know more correctly.

    precocious, adj, She’s such a precocious little girl!: uncommonly smart, mature, advanced, smart, bright, brilliant, gifted, quick, clever, apt.

    Ant. slow, backward, stupid.

    Using Proper Connotations

    A denotation is the dictionary definition of a word. A connotation, on the other hand, is the emotional or cultural meaning attached to a word. The connotation of a word can be positive, negative, or neutral. Keep in mind the connotative meaning when choosing a word.


    • Denotation: Exceptionally thin and slight or meager in body or size.
    • Word used in a sentence: Although he was a premature baby and a scrawny child, Martin has developed into a strong man.
    • Connotation: (Negative) In this sentence the word scrawny may have a negative connotation in the readers’ minds. They might find it to mean a weakness or a personal flaw; however, the word fits into the sentence appropriately.


    • Denotation: Lacking sufficient flesh, very thin.
    • Word used in a sentence: Skinny jeans have become very fashionable in the past couple of years.
    • Connotation: (Positive) Based on cultural and personal impressions of what it means to be skinny, the reader may have positive connotations of the word skinny.


    • Denotation: Lacking or deficient in flesh; containing little or no fat.
    • Word used in a sentence: My brother has a lean figure, whereas I have a more muscular build.
    • Connotation: (Neutral) In this sentence, lean has a neutral connotation.

    It does not call to mind an overly skinny person like the word scrawny, nor does imply the positive cultural impressions of the word skinny. It is merely a neutral descriptive word. Notice that all the words have a very similar denotation; however, the connotations of each word differ.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    In the first column, you will find words with similar denotations. Identify the words’connotations as positive, negative, or neutral by writing the word in the appropriate box. Copy the chart onto your own piece of paper.

    Positive Negative Neutral
    curious, nosy, interested
    lazy, relaxed, slow
    courageous, foolhardy, assured
    new, newfangled, modern
    mansion, shack, residence
    spinster, unmarried woman, career woman
    giggle, laugh, cackle
    boring, routine, prosaic
    noted, notorious, famous
    assertive, confident, pushy

    Avoiding Slang

    Slang describes informal words that are considered nonstandard English. Slang often changes with passing fads and may be used by or familiar to only a specific group of people. Most people use slang when they speak and in personal correspondences, such as e-mails, text messages, and instant messages. Slang is appropriate between friends in an informal context but should be avoided in formal academic writing.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\):

    Edit the following paragraph by replacing the slang words and phrases with more formal language. Rewrite the paragraph on your own sheet of paper.

    I felt like such an airhead when I got up to give my speech. As I walked toward the podium, I banged my knee on a chair. Man, I felt like such a klutz. On top of that, I kept saying “like” and “um,” and I could not stop fidgeting. I was so stressed out about being up there. I feel like I’ve been practicing this speech 24/7, and I still bombed. It was ten minutes of me going off about how we sometimes have to do things we don’t enjoy doing. Wow, did I ever prove my point. My speech was so bad I’m surprised that people didn’t boo. My teacher said not to sweat it, though. Everyone gets nervous his or her first time speaking in public, and she said, with time, I would become a whiz at this speech giving stuff. I wonder if I have the guts to do it again.

    Avoiding Clichés

    Clichés are descriptive expressions that have lost their effectiveness because they are overused. Writing that uses clichés often suffers from a lack of originality and insight. Avoiding clichés in formal writing will help you write in original and fresh ways.

    • Clichéd: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes my blood boil.
    • Plain: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes me really angry.
    • Original: Whenever my brother and I get into an argument, he always says something that makes me want to go to the gym and punch the bag for a few hours.


    Think about all the cliché phrases that you hear in popular music or in everyday conversation. What would happen if these clichés were transformed into something unique?

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\):

    On your own sheet of paper, revise the following sentences by replacing the clichés with fresh, original descriptions.

    1. She is writing a memoir in which she will air her family’s dirty laundry.
    2. Beth had an ax to grind with Allen, and she planned to confront him at the party.
    3. Mr. Nguyen was at his wit’s end with the rowdy class of seventh graders.
    4. The bottom line is that Joel was fired because he missed too many days of work.
    5. Sometimes it is hard to make ends meet with just one paycheck.
    6. My brain is fried from pulling an all-nighter.
    7. Maria left the dishes in the sink all week to give Jose a taste of his own medicine.
    8. While they were at the carnival Janice exclaimed, “Time sure does fly when you are having fun!”
    9. Jeremy became tongue-tied after the interviewer asked him where he saw himself in five years.
    10. Jordan was dressed to the nines that night.

    Avoiding Overly General Words

    Specific words and images make your writing more interesting to read. Whenever possible, avoid overly general words in your writing; instead, try to replace general language with particular nouns, verbs, and modifiers that convey details and that bring yours words to life. Add words that provide color, texture, sound, and even smell to your writing.

    • General: My new puppy is cute.
    • Specific: My new puppy is a ball of white fuzz with the biggest black eyes I have ever seen.
    • General: My teacher told us that plagiarism is bad.
    • Specific: My teacher, Ms. Atwater, created a presentation detailing exactly how plagiarism is illegal and unethical.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\):

    Revise the following sentences by replacing the overly general words with more precise and attractive language. Write the new sentences on your own sheet of paper.

    1. Adyam got into her car and drove off.
    2. I would like to travel to outer space because it would be amazing.
    3. Drashty came home after a bad day at the office.
    4. I thought Mohamed’s essay was fascinating.
    5. The dog walked up the street.
    6. The coal miners were tired after a long day.
    7. The tropical fish are pretty.
    8. I sweat a lot after running.
    9. The goalie blocked the shot.
    10. I enjoyed my Mexican meal.


    Synonyms are words that have the same, or almost the same, meaning as another word. You can say an “easy task” or a “simple task” because easy and simple are synonyms. You can say Hong Kong is a “large city” or a “metropolis” because city and metropolis are synonyms.

    However, it is important to remember that not all pairs of words in the English language are so easily interchangeable. The slight but important differences in meaning between synonyms can make a big difference in your writing. For example, the words boring and insipid may have similar meanings, but the subtle differences between the two will affectthe message your writing conveys. The word insipid evokes a scholarly and perhaps more pretentious message than boring.

    The English language is full of pairs of words that have subtle distinctions between them. All writers, professionals and beginners alike, face the challenge of choosing the most appropriate synonym to best convey their ideas. When you pay particular attention to synonyms in your writing, it comes across to your reader. The sentences become much more clear and rich in meaning.

    Writers at Work

    Any writing you do at work involves a careful choice of words. For example, if you are writing an e-mail to your employer regarding your earnings, you can use the word pay, salary, or hourly wage. There are also other synonyms to choose from. Just keep in mind that the word you choose will have an effect on the reader, so you want to choose wisely to get the desired effect.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\):

    Replace the underlined words in the paragraphs with appropriate synonyms. Write the new paragraph on your own sheet of paper.

    When most people think of the Renaissance, they might think of artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, or Leonardo da Vinci, but they often overlook one of the very important figures of the Renaissance: Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi was born in Florence, Italy in 1377. He is considered the very best architect and engineer of the Renaissance. His impressive accomplishments are a testament to following one’s dreams, persevering in the face of obstacles, and realizing one’s vision.

    The most difficult undertaking of Brunelleschi’s career was the dome of Florence Cathedral, which took sixteen years to construct. A major blow to the progress of the construction happened in 1428. Brunelleschi had designed a special ship to carry the one hundred tons of marble needed for the dome. He felt this would be the most inexpensive way to transport the marble, but the unthinkable happened. The ship went down to the bottom of the water, taking all the marble with it to the bottom of the river. Brunelleschi was really sad. Nevertheless, he did not give up. He held true to his vision of the completed dome. Filippo Brunelleschi completed construction of the dome of Florence Cathedral in 1446. His influence on artists and architects alike was felt strongly during his lifetime and can still be felt in this day and age.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\):

    On your own sheet of paper, write a sentence with each of the following words that illustrates the specific meaning of each synonym.

    1. leave, abandon
    2. mad, insane
    3. outside, exterior
    4. poor, destitute
    5. quiet, peaceful
    6. riot, revolt
    7. rude, impolite
    8. talk, conversation
    9. hug, embrace
    10. home, residence


    Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning of a given word. The study of antonyms will not only help you choose the most appropriate word as you write; it will also sharpen your overall sense of language. The following table lists common words and their antonyms.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Common Antonyms














































    destroy, demolish




    timid, meek



    capable incapable miser spendthrift





































    forget remember vacant occupied


    Learning antonyms is an effective way to increase your vocabulary. Memorizing words in combination with or in relation to other words often help

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{7}\):

    Correct the following sentences by replacing the underlined words with an antonym. Write the antonym on your own sheet of paper.

    1. The pilot who landed the plane was a coward because no one was injured.
    2. Even though the botany lecture was two hours long, Gerard found it incredibly dull.
    3. My mother says it is impolite to say thank you like you really mean it.
    4. Although I have learned a lot of information through textbooks, it is life experience that has given me ignorance.
    5. When our instructor said the final paper was compulsory, it was music to my ears!
    6. My only virtues are coffee, video games, and really loud music.
    7. Elvin was so bold when he walked in the classroom that he sat in the back row and did not participate.
    8. Maria thinks elephants who live in freedom have a sad look in their eyes.
    9. The teacher filled her students’ minds with gloomy thoughts about their futures.
    10. The guest attended to every one of our needs.

    Writing Applicaton

    Write a paragraph that describes your favorite dish or food. Use as many synonyms as you can in the description, even if it seems too many. Be creative. Consult a thesaurus, and take this opportunity to use words you have never used before. Be prepared to share your paragraph.

    Key Takeaways

    • Using a dictionary and thesaurus as you write will improve your writing by improving your word choice.
    • Connotations of words may be positive, neutral, or negative.
    • Slang, clichés, and overly general words should be avoided in academic writing.
    • Synonyms are words that have the same, or almost the same, meaning as another word.
    • Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning of another word.
    • Choosing the right synonym refines your writing.
    • Learning common antonyms sharpens your sense of language and expands your vocabulary.

    This page titled 6.3: Word Choice is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Barbara Hall & Elizabeth Wallace (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .

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